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Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary.

Penrith five-eighth James Maloney has backed team-mate Nathan Cleary to wear the No.6 jersey for NSW for next Sunday’s must-win State of Origin in Perth.

Maloney ensured Blues coach Brad Fittler would have a difficult decision choosing his halves after steering the Panthers to a 19-18 defeat of South Sydney at ANZ Stadium on Saturday night.

Fittler broke up last year’s series winning scrumbase pairing of Maloney and Cleary for Origin I because Penrith were struggling, but they have since won four consecutive matches to climb within two points of the top eight.

The veteran playmaker believes Cleary is a certainty to retain his place and wants to play alongside him in the historic match at Optus Stadium but if not he is confident his Panthers team-mate would form a good combination with Newcastle halfback Mitchell Pearce.

“He can play either or, pretty much,” Maloney said when asked if Cleary could play five-eighth with Pearce at halfback. “Whatever position he plays I think he will have a similar role.

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“I have got no doubts he will be there. He will be there for sure. I’d love to be there with him but if not I think Mitch will be good for him as well. He is a really high-quality player and I think he would be good as well.”

Pearce and Maloney were the 2013 premiership-winning halves for Sydney Roosters and Maloney backed him to make a successful return to Origin after being overlooked in 2018.

“I have always said I would love to be there but I wasn’t for game one, and if I’m not for game two there is a lot of talk that Pearcey might be there,” he said.

“I am really good mates with Mitch and I think he is playing good footy so I would be stoked to see him back in that arena as well.”

Despite Penrith’s turnaround in fortunes since beating Parramatta four weeks ago, Maloney said his own form hadn’t altered dramatically. He did admit that South Sydney five-eighth Cody Walker deserved selection for NSW

“Personally I didn’t think I was in the worst form but we weren’t going that well, which doesn’t help,” he said.

“When you are a senior player in a side, and have a pretty big responsibility over the side and the outcome, if you are not getting the job done I definitely think there were guys like Cody that were in really good touch but I don’t think too many changes.

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“I have played two games since Origin I so I don’t think I have turned everything around but I have never had any doubts that if I was there I could do the job.”

He said the younger players in the Panthers side were now playing with increased confidence.

“Confidence is a weird word because everyone talks about confidence but it is just footy. I suppose with a young group confidence is a thing. It helps you throw that pass that you are sort of umming and aahing about,” Maloney said.

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“We just need to back our footy and I think we have found what works for us. At some point, for it to change, there had to be 17 blokes turn up one week and say enough is enough.

“I suppose that is what happened in that Parramatta game. I think at the start everyone just thought it would happen so we’ve learnt some hard lessons but we have still got plenty of work to do.”

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